It’s difficult to read “tone” in any written account, including the Gospel accounts. The Lukan author gives clues here and there in the text. For example, when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, all those who saw this “grumbled.” We don’t have to guess at the tone of the indictment. “He [Jesus] has gone in to take lodging with a sinful man” (Luke 19:7, my translation).
It isn’t quite so easy to get the tone of Zacchaeus’ response to this public critique. As I’ve noted, I think we should go with the present tense of the verbs in Luke 19:8. So, this isn’t a promise or a vow. Instead, it’s a personal defense. “Look, one half of what belongs to me, Lord, I’m giving to the poor,” Zacchaeus says, “and if I have extorted something from someone, I am repaying it four times over” (Luke 19:8, my translation).
That’s what Zacchaeus says. But how does he say it, and to whom? It’s clear that he makes his personal apologia to Jesus, whom he addresses as “Lord.” His apologia is in response to the criticism from the crowd. I wonder if Zacchaeus is more exasperated than solicitous. He makes this response “standing.” There’s a lot of body language in the Lukan account, and I’ve learned to take that language seriously in a close reading of the text.
As a small man, Zacchaeus perhaps draws himself up to full height. Perhaps he has to stand up (or even on something else) in order to be seen and heard. I can imagine him drawing a full breath and letting it out in frustration. “Look at me!” he says to the crowd (and Jesus). See me for what I am! For crying out loud, I give away half my stuff to poor people. Some of you here are beneficiaries of my generosity. If my contractors take advantage of you, I make repairs four times over. What more do I have to do to get your respect!
That’s what I hear in this text at the moment. Zacchaeus is an outsider in multiple ways. He works with the Roman imperial oppressors. He’s rich and is therefore suspect because of the sources of his wealth. He has new money at the expense of others, so he’s not welcome at all the fancy dinner parties. He’s a short man in a world where Apollo and Adonis provide the ideals of maleness and masculinity. He’s a faithful Jew in a system that expects him to be a selfish scoundrel.
What does he have to do to get their respect? Nothing. Money can’t buy respect. Power doesn’t bring belonging. Zacchaeus does it all right, and he’s still regarded as all wrong. Nothing Zacchaeus does is going to put him right in the eyes of his neighbors. It’s no wonder he explodes in exasperation when those neighbors treat him like crap in front of Jesus.
Could any treatment do more to bring a “high” person low? It’s obvious that Zacchaeus is caught doing his “fan boy” thing as Jesus passes through town. He just wants to see this famous (and perhaps infamous) peasant rabbi who has become something when he should really still be nothing. Zacchaeus would like to just slip through the crowd to get a look, but the crowd’s not having it.
On an impulse, he sprints ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree. As he’s climbing the tree, Jesus notices him. I know it’s presumptuous, but I think the NRSV misses the point in Luke 19:5. The NRSV reads, “When Jesus came to the place…” This place is where Zacchaeus has climbed the tree. So far, so good.
The pronouns in this verse, however, are not quite that clear. The text reads “and as he came upon the place.” The referent of “he” is not certain. It could be Jesus. It could be Zacchaeus. I think the latter is more likely. The Lukan author uses the same preposition, “epi,” as we find in verse four. In verse four, the preposition describes how Zacchaeus climbs the tree. I think verse five should read, “And as he [Zacchaeus] came upon that spot [up in the tree], Jesus looked up and said to him…”
Why does this matter? At precisely the moment when Zacchaeus is the most vulnerable, even though he clearly doesn’t wish to be seen, Jesus notices him and points him out. If Jesus had wished to join in the community ridicule and rejection directed toward Zacchaeus, this would be precisely the moment to do so. Zacchaeus was exposed, alone, and a bit ridiculous in that moment. I think the expected response was that Jesus would pounce on the opportunity to shame this powerful and rich man.
Of course, Jesus does precisely the opposite. He sees and recognizes Zacchaeus in his moment of potential shame. He says, “Come down directly, Zacchaeus. For today it is necessary for me to dwell in your house” (Luke 19:7b, my translation). We have the verb, “dei,” which so often indicates divine necessity and will. This meeting isn’t any chance encounter. God is doing something important, and Jesus is making it happen.
Jesus isn’t merely popping in to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus intends to remain there for a while. The verb is “meno,” which means to dwell or remain. This intention to stick around for a while is part of what bothers the grumblers. The word they use to describe Jesus’ actions is that he is going to “take up lodging with a sinful man” (Luke 19:7c, my translation). The word for “take up lodging” is related to the Greek work for an “inn” or a “guest room” (kataluma). Jesus is making a deep connection.
Twice in our text we get the word “today.” Jesus tells Zacchaeus that it’s necessary for him to dwell in Zacchaeus’ house “today.” In Luke 16:9, we hear that salvation has come this house “today.” We might think ahead to Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” There is no delay, no condition, no hesitation. It’s happening here and now. And what’s happening is an immediate embrace of one who is rejected and excluded.
What does Zacchaeus have to do to get their respect? Nothing – because nothing is going to do it. No matter how many hoops Zacchaeus jumps through, he’s always going to be on the outside looking in. But that’s not the case with Jesus. Jesus’ connection with Zacchaeus comes before his declarations of personal piety and practice. We could speculate, as do some commentators, that Jesus knows this in advance. But that’s not what the text says. Jesus embraces Zacchaeus, and the crowds do not.
It’s clear that this story is about belonging. Part of the punchline is that even Zacchaeus, despised and detested as he is, is “a son of Abraham.” The little Greek word “kai” is doing a lot of work in Luke 19:9. Perhaps it means “also” as the NRSV renders it. But I wonder if the translation shouldn’t be “because even he [Zacchaeus] is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9b, my translation and emphasis). If Zacchaeus, the outsider par excellence, is a child of Abraham, then perhaps there’s hope for us as well.
Jesus concludes by declaring that the Son of Man came to seek out and to save “the lost.” This word in both subject and verb forms appears in the Lost and Found parables of Luke 15 seven times. Remember that those parables are told, according to the Lukan author, in response to the “grumbling” (yes, same verb) of the Pharisees and the scribes. The lost ones in the parables are restored to the flock, the piggy bank, and the family. “Lost” in those contexts means separated from the group. “Found” means restored to the community.
In each of those parables, and in our text, the “finding” produces a party! The one who does the finding is the host of the party. That’s true of the sheep owner, the woman, and the Forgiving Father. It’s true in our text as well. We read, of course, that Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree and joyfully welcomes Jesus (Luke 19:6). And the complaint in verse seven is that Jesus is a guest in Zacchaeus’ house.
“Ironically,” Mittelstadt writes, “the statement of the crowd fails to anticipate Luke’s reversal. Zacchaeus may have entertained and nourished Jesus,” Mittelstadt continues, “but Zacchaeus becomes the guest of Jesus’ hospitality” (page 136). When someone is found, Jesus throws a party, and Jesus is the host. When Jesus comes, salvation arrives and takes up residence. When that happens, the stranger becomes guest. The outsider becomes a member of the family. That’s true no matter what the grumbling crowd may believe.
What do I have to do to get some respect around here? Nothing, Zacchaeus! Nobody has that much money. Inclusion in the family of God comes as a gift of grace, not a commodity that can be purchased. We can play the buying and selling game for a lifetime if we wish. And we’ll never win. No matter how many billions we accumulate, it’s never enough to buy belonging. This is the real celebration of the Reformation – justified by grace through faith.
And that’s why Jesus next tells a parable about one who has resigned from the buying and selling game. If the third servant in the Parable of the Pounds is the hero, this is part of what that parable means. You see, Zacchaeus, the buying and selling game may get you power. But it won’t get you love and respect. Resigning from that game comes with a cost, that’s true. But it’s a cost disciples pay because we’ve already been given everything that truly matters.
References and Resources
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Mittelstadt, Martin William. “Eat, drink, and be merry: A theology of hospitality in Luke-Acts.” Word & World 34, no. 2 (2014): 131-139.
Solevåg, Anna Rebecca. “Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke: Comic Figure, Sinner, and Included” Other”.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14, no. 2 (2020): 225-240.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).